Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A violence-prone loner with anger management issues finds an outlet for his antisocial tendencies when he transfers to a new high school where a trio of preppies run roughshod over the rest of the student body. The ruling clique also has a fourth member – a recent recruit – who blanches at their more degrading demonstrations of power and forges a connection with the outsider, who works to destabilize the power structure. But just because one dictator is removed from the picture, that doesn’t prevent others from rushing in to fill the vacuum, inspiring the newcomer to contemplate more drastic measures.
If this sounds like 1988’s Heathers, it also describes the basic plot of Massacre at Central High, made a dozen years earlier and currently at the head of the “High School Horror” class on the Criterion Channel. (Notably missing is Brian De Palma’s Carrie, with which it would be vying for pole position since they were released the same year.) Long out of circulation until Synapse Films restored and released it on Blu-ray last fall, Massacre isn’t as overtly comedic as Heathers, but its take on teenage vernacular is just as distinctive, even as it leans less on clever punchlines to land its satirical barbs. (It’s also a notable progenitor of Rian Johnson’s noir-inflected Brick.)
Unlike writer Daniel Waters and director Michael Lehmann, who pitched Heathers in such a way that its arch dialogue was a natural outgrowth of the film’s heightened reality, the off-kilter cadences in Massacre are due to the fact that writer/director René Daalder was not a native English speaker and some of the cast didn’t alter the at-times stilted lines their Dutch-born director put down on the page. (In the retrospective documentary included on the Synapse release, a few of the actors talk about meeting up after hours to finesse their scenes, but that practice didn’t extend to all of them.)
As in Heathers, the characters in Massacre fall into broadly defined types. At its center is David (Derrel Maury), the proverbial new kid on the block who refuses to go along with the way things are run at Central High. This is in spite of the efforts of his friend Mark (Andrew Stevens), who knows him from the last school they both attended (where David helped him out of an unspecified jam), to set him up as one of the top dogs under the smug Bruce (Ray Underwood) and his two cronies. The targets of their unchecked bullying include a nascent social justice warrior, a working-class kid with a beat-up car, an overweight slob, the egghead student librarian, and a pair of probable lesbians. About the only student who escapes their wrath is Mark’s steady girlfriend Theresa (Kimberly Beck), who is just as fed up with the status quo, but isn’t prepared to take the same steps as David.
Because you can’t have a movie called Massacre at Central High without the massacre, it isn’t long after David is crippled for daring to stand up to Bruce and his goons that he starts methodically killing them in ways designed to look like accidents. His classmates are quick to pick up on the pattern, though. “One accident, groovy, it’s an accident,” says hippie holdout Spoony (Robert Carradine). “But two? That’s something else.” An unforeseen consequence of David’s actions, though, is the way various factions approach him about forging alliances so the school can be run their way. Those once under Bruce’s heel find their time on top short-lived, however, as David takes it upon himself to beef up the body count.
Notably absent from all of this are teachers, parents, or authority figures of any kind, making Central High a Lord of the Flies-type pressure cooker as well as a microcosm of society. This is where Daalder’s script and direction really shine, and his potent political allegory culminates in a dramatic confrontation at the prom (where else?) between the three people left standing who know what’s going on.
As with many independent films that achieved cult status back when midnight movies were still a thing, Massacre has had a curious afterlife. While it wasn’t successful on its initial release in 1976, it hung around on the second-run circuit before gaining momentum four years later when Vincent Canby caught a random screening and raved about it, touching off a wave of critical notices that it was a film to watch. (Amy Taubin and Roger Ebert were two others moved to belatedly sing its praises.) The key, however, was its inclusion in Danny Peary’s Cult Movies 2 in 1983, placing it in rarified company. Between Synapse’s restoration job and its Criterion-prompted higher profile, the cult of Massacre at Central High will only grow from here.